Friday, August 15, 2014

Putting Ferguson In Historical Context

Events in Ferguson have really opened up a public discourse in the mainstream that has usually been left on the margins.  Concerns about the militarization of the police, institutional racism, the violence used by the police against unarmed black men, and restrictions on First Amendment rights are all getting a lot of deserved attention.  It's been particularly interesting for me as a historian to see a lot of talk about historical analogies with the 1960s.

In the more popular discourse, you might see people comparing images of Ferguson in 2014 with those of Birmingham in 1963 and Selma in 1965.  The smarter marks, however, have been thinking about the urban uprisings by African Americans in northern cities during that time, and have returned to the Kerner Commission's report about them.  Northern whites have a tendency to want to blame their Southern counterparts for racism, and thus absolve themselves in the bargain.  One way to dispel this convenient hypocrisy is to make people confront their own history, not just what happened in Alabama, as awful as that was.

If you look at uprisings and riots in northern cities in the 1960s, you'll find more than your share of police brutality a la Bull Connor.  In the first place, as the Kerner Commission report demonstrates, most disturbances came in reaction to incidents of police brutality.  The response to protest and anger over such actions resembles the violent tactics used by police in Ferguson.  In the example of Newark in1967, the brunt of the violence came after state police and the National Guard were called in, who then promptly shot up the place and even targeted black-owned businesses for destruction.  In 1968 during unrest in Chicago after Martin Luther King's assassination, mayor Daley said that police ought to "shoot to kill" potential arsonists and "shoot to maim" looters.

Americans might be the world's foremost historical amnesiacs.  They like to pretend that each person is the master of their own destiny, and thus free from the weight of the past.  That's simply not so, as the events in Ferguson show.  It's good that there are louder discussions of the history of racism, residential segregation, and violent policing in our public discourse.  Until that history is learned, I don't see much hope for those problems to be fixed.

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